Venezuela: From Riches to Rags

By David Keirstead, J.D. Class of 2022

Before working at the William & Mary Law School Immigration Clinic, I knew very little about Venezuela. I knew the country was in South America, and that it was experiencing political and economic instability. Other than that, I was in the dark. After being assigned an asylum case involving a client who fled Venezuela because of political persecution, I was tasked with doing country conditions research.

Country conditions research is an important piece of an asylum application. It helps paint a detailed and vivid picture about an individual’s past. The research helps the adjudicating officer understand an asylum applicant’s story holistically, putting the applicant’s experiences in context. For example, it is one thing to say Venezuela’s economy is struggling, and another to say inflation soared 65,374.08% in 2018; thus, making a theoretical $5.00 cup of coffee cost $3,273.75.1 In contrast, America’s inflation is at a thirteen-year high of 5.4% in 2021, causing “fear” among the American people.2

So, what is happening in Venezuela? What caused our client, and more than 5.6 million people like them, to flee their country?3 How could a nation with the world’s largest oil reserves become so impoverished?4 The current situation is directly linked to two people: Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.5

Venezuela has been governed by these two men since 1999. Chávez was President until 2013, succeeded by his right-hand man, Nicolás Maduro. During Chávez’s rein, he established unified control of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Electoral Council, and armed forces. Chávez implemented massive social programs by redirecting oil profits to address inequality. Although these programs reduced poverty, they increased the country’s dependence on oil, and neglected investment in maintaining the oil facilities and infrastructure.6

However, the economic crisis happened during Maduro’s rule, starting in 2014. With little investment in the oil facilities, production began to slow, and eventually demand for oil shrank.7 Venezuela’s reliance on oil made the problem overwhelming, which was later exacerbated by U.S. sanctions.8 The Venezuelan currency, bolivars, became worthless;9 this was evidenced by pictures of cash piled up on the streets of Venezuela.10 As a result of the crisis, nearly 32 million people could not afford food, and hospitals lacked soap and antibiotics.11

The policies that once made basic goods more affordable—like price controls on flour, cooking oil, and toiletries—accelerated the economic downfall.12 Businesses stopped producing these necessities because they could no longer make a profit.13 This prompted some Venezuelans to flee to neighboring countries, and provoked others to protest those in power, specifically Maduro.

The protests were met with a heavy hand. The United Nations put out a report finding that Maduro and his security forces had committed “egregious” human rights violations.14 Maduro and his defense ministers were found to have engaged in a pattern of systemic violence since 2014, intended to suppress political opposition and generally terrorize the population.15 There were cases of unjustified killings, torture, violence, and disappearances of protestors and opposition leaders.16

After opposition parties won a majority in the National Assembly in 2016,17 Venezuela’s Supreme Court, packed with Maduro loyalists, took the National Assembly’s powers away.18 With the National Assembly devoid of any power, the highest court under Maduro’s control, and the military loyal to him—Maduro had absolute power over the country.19

Then, a year later in 2018, a presidential election was held. Predictably, Maduro was “re-elected.” However, the election was widely rejected as rigged and illegitimate.20 More than 50 countries, including the U.S., recognized the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the true president of Venezuela.21 Canada, Brazil, Chile and other countries put out the “Lima group declaration.”22 This declaration stated that the election “lacked legitimacy” because the government failed to meet “international standards for a free, fair and transparent election.”23 In addition, the statement condemned the “anti-democratic, oppressive and dictatorial actions and policies undertaken by the Maduro regime.”24

Even though Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president in 2019, Maduro has remained in the presidential palace, in charge of the military, and generally in control of the nation.25 This power struggle has yet to be resolved.26

These devastating events have caused a massive exodus from Venezuela. Without the ability to feed their families, obtain basic medical supplies, or make their voices heard, Venezuelans have fled the country in search of aid. Our Clinic’s client, like many others from Venezuela, has been demonized, threatened, and attacked for simply exercising his basic human right of free speech. After conducting country conditions research, I now have an informed perspective that helps me serve our client better. By understanding the layered and complex history of Venezuela, I am able to more fully appreciate the client’s situation, and present his case to the adjudicating officer with context and perspective. This improves the client’s chances of success with his asylum application, and strengthens his trust in me handling the case. Country conditions research is invaluable for an asylum application.

[1] Venezuela: Inflation Rate from 1985 to 2022, Statista (April 1, 2021),

[2] Heather Long, Uncomfortable Inflation is here, and it’s Changing the Economy, Wash. Post (Oct. 15, 2021),

[3] Venezuela crisis in 300 words, BBC (Aug. 12, 2021),

[4] Patrick Kiger, How Venezuela Fell from the Richest Country in South America into Crisis, History (May 9,2019), See also Craig Anthony, 10 Countries with the Most Natural Resources, Investopedia (April 25, 2021),

[5] BBC, supra note 3.

[6] Kiger, supra note 4.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Ari Shapiro, How Venezuela’s Currency Became So Worthless, NPR (April 8, 2019),

[10] Id.

[11] Kiger, supra note 4.

[12] BBC, supra note 3.

[13] Id.

[14] Venezuela: UN Investigators Accuse Authorities of Crimes Against Humanity, BBC (Sept. 16, 2020),

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] BBC, supra note 3.

[18] Kiger, supra note 4.

[19] See id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Lima group declaration, Gov. of Can. (April 1, 2019),

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] BBC, supra note 3.

[26] Id.